Fight Club and Buddhism
This is a paper I did in university in 2003. I presented it at the University of Lethbridge at the Religious Studies Conference.
The Violent Vehicle:
Fight Club as a Buddhist Path to Enlightenment
Fight Club is a 1999 American film based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. The film was directed by David Fincher and stars Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter.
 Besides painfully obvious utterances by Edward Norton’s character, such as “I was the Zen master”[i] and his haiku writing, the movie Fight Club has many Buddhist parallels. Edward Norton’s character is unnamed (hinting at Anatman) and will be referred to as ‘Jack’. His life loosely parallels the Life of the Buddha, as he begins to realize that there is something oddly not right about existence (Dukkha), he sets forth on a journey to learn how to quench his discomfort. On this journey he must deal with the ideas of self, suffering, and possible cures, which would allow him to exist apart from the inner turmoil he feels. The movie is an exploration of the search for a cure and a final nirvana.
 ‘Jack’ lives in a condo where he “had it all”[ii]. In his palace, much like Prince Siddhartha, he is free from the troubles of other people with his hip furniture, novelty dishware, and catalogues that provide him with the ability to obtain whatever was needed to occupy his worldly wants. However, he begins to suffer from insomnia, a sign that something is not quite right. He then ventures outside the doors of his palace in search of truth, entering into the world of the decaying, suffering, and dying. He experiences sights, which open his eyes to the bigger world. Death due to car wrecks is an everyday sight for him as he has to write accident reports for his job, but he begins to truly encounter the suffering while attending support groups for incest survivors, Tuberculosis sufferers, and meetings for individuals host to cancer or parasites. Throughout his time experiencing the world of pain, flashes of Tyler Durden appear on the screen, symbolizing the possibility of a cure, the deeper truth, and the birth of the person who is free of trouble he would like to become.
 As well as searching for a cure to heal his mysterious ailment, he is also searching to understand the self, evident by the fact that he chooses a different name at each group he attends, never actually revealing a universal name to be known by throughout the entire movie. While attending these meetings he begins to cry, symbolizing his understanding that the world is suffering (the First Noble Truth). As he performs this meditational crying he lets go of the idea that existence is fine the way it is and comes to find some comfort in the realization that everyone suffers. This enables him to sleep again, knowing he has made a step closer to understanding reality. In searching he also begins to experiment with different meditations, one of which allows him to escape into a cave away from the world with his “power animal”[iii].
 His contentment is disturbed by the presence of Marla Singer, an obvious faker, at his support group meetings. She is symbolic of the profane self catching up to him. She is his ordinary, suffering self that he was and is, but rejects and is perpetually trying to escape. Marla is the reason he can not sleep, and it is what she represents in himself that he wishes to be rid of. She smokes during the Tuberculosis meetings and attends the testicular cancer group; “her lie reflected [his] lie”[iv]. He can no longer sleep, and she has invaded his meditations by becoming his “power animal”. He now realizes that these support groups, symbolic of the realization that life is suffering and unsatisfactory, are not enough. He must find a cure. Marla forces him to intensify his search in order to escape what she represents. During this time his apartment is blown up (by him), which is symbolic of Siddhartha’s leaving the palace to lead the ascetic life. It is interesting that ‘Jack’ points out that his apartment was filled with condiments, but no food. There was no substance in his palace, it just flavored life to make the suffering harder to see. He is now completely devoted to finding a cure. He is ejected from his comfort zone, into the world of the suffering. For ‘Jack’ it is now enlightenment or bust.
 When ‘Jack’ moves in with Tyler he has no possessions and no ties to his previous life, save his job, which he later abandons. In meeting with Tyler he learns his teachings on life and enlightenment; “the things you own end up owning you”. They have their first fight and begin their meditation into truth, living with Tyler in a dilapidated house, wearing dirty clothes, losing teeth and blood due to fighting. All are symbolic of entering the life of asceticism. The punishment of one’s body reminds one that life is suffering and keeps one’s mind focused on the goal to transcend the Dukkha being experienced. Fight Club is not about winning or losing, and it is not about words, it is about the experience of living in the present.
 ‘Jack’ first met Tyler on an airplane seated next to and in charge of the emergency exit door, representative of the way the Dharma controls the ‘exit door’ to Samsara. It is interesting that Tyler sells soap, used for purifying and cleansing, just as the Dharma cleanses away the impurities that hold one in Samsara. The soap itself is a symbol of non-duality in that it is made processed from lipo-suctioned fat of wealthy women (profane), that they pay to have removed, which is then sold back to them as high priced designer soap (sacred). What is in one form detested is highly valued in another. This expresses the oneness and interconnectedness of the world. Before meeting Tyler, who is actually ‘Jack’s imaginary friend, all the teachings ‘Jack’ received were coming from outside himself. He learned to cry and escape the world in his cave in support groups taught by others who were attempting to alleviate their suffering (Dukkha). Now he was searching on his own, just as Siddhartha had to eventually leave his teachers Alara Kalama, and Ruddaka Ramaputta, in search of deeper truth he sensed he could only teach himself.
 The teachings of Tyler also reflect the unsatisfactoriness of life in that all are “working at jobs [they] hate, to buy shit [they] don’t need”[v], hinting at the Second Noble Truth (Samudaya) that desire (trsna) causes suffering (samudaya). The character of Tyler strives for non-duality by persistently mixing the profane with the sacred, slicing single frames of porn into children’s movies, and urinating in high class meals. He desires to shock his culture into waking up by rubbing their faces in the reality of life, whether it is labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
 Tyler also challenges the social norms by asking ‘Jack’ to fight him, mixing profane violence with sacred friendship. Although physical violence violates Ahimsa (non-harming, which is one of the five rules for Right Action in the Eight Fold Path), fighting could still play a role in a more Tantric path, which allows one to delve into the physical reality of desire and sensation. Symbolically, fighting could represent the awareness that life is suffering, and it could also represent the ego, which naturally pits itself in battle against everything that is ‘not-self’. “In most cases the affirmation of the ego leads only to disappointment, or else to conflict with other egos just as exclusive … [one] might end up killing someone”[vi]. Fighting could be used as a meditation because “encountering sufferings will definitely contribute to the elevation of [one’s] spiritual practice, provided [one] is able to transform the calamity and misfortune into the path”[vii]. However, “it’s not that suffering is important or valuable in itself, but that suffering is our teacher”[viii]. In fighting, ‘Jack’ realizes that he holds onto the idea of the existence of a separate self and participates in battle with that which is ‘not self’, making obvious the workings of everyday unenlightened existence.
 Just when ‘Jack’ began to feel that the extreme asceticism found in the Fight Club was the answer, Marla catches up to him. Again he begins to experience the profane and feels that he must intensify his struggle against it, resulting in an even more extreme practice. Tyler’s non-duality is shown again by his persistent fornication with Marla, showing ‘Jack’s desire to reconcile himself to his profane side. He does not want to be ashamed of these aspects of himself, so his ‘Dharma self’ (Tyler) has no problem with Marla and is very intimate with her.
 The presence of Marla escalates ‘Jack’s search with the chemical burn meditation. Tyler kisses ‘Jack’s hand, which he then covers with lye, producing a severe chemical burn. ‘Jack’ tries to escape the pain using the meditations he learned in the groups, but they are of little use. Tyler forces him to come back to the present moment, and not to escape it by hiding away from the world in a cave. ‘Jack’ is forced to live in the ‘now’, to experience the suffering that is reality and give up the illusion of control. Tyler teaches that “it is only once we have lost everything that we are free to do anything”[ix]. It is in giving up desires, control, and the idea of self, that one can find true freedom from Samsara, which is Nirvana.
 The search is further intensified with the giving of homework assignments to the members of the Fight Club, who are to become Project Mayhem, symbolizing the Sangha. As individuals apply for membership they are put through a vigorous process where they have to wait outside for three days with only the most basic gear. Also, each individual must carry with them five hundred dollars of personal cremation money. The applicant is then told that they will not be accepted and are told to leave, if the applicant stays on the porch without food, hope or encouragement, then they will be accepted into Project Mayhem. “This is how Buddhist temples have tested applicants going back a bah-zillion years, Tyler says”[x]. Upon entrance to Project Mayhem the applicants’ heads are shaved, making them resemble Buddhist monks. Each member has no name, symbolizing the attempted realization that there is no self (Anatman). Project Mayhem is involved in many acts of vandalism, which may appear to be very un-Buddhist when taken literally, but if one views them symbolically, the parallel can be seen in the effects on each culture; North American and Indian.
 The homework assignments and missions of Project Mayhem result in vandalism and violence to person and property in the general populace, as well as to corporations. Project Mayhem attacks the very foundations of Western culture, by attacking consumerism and capitalism. The Buddha’s Sangha was also involved in the attack of Indian culture by its rejection of traditional Vedic thought, in its sacrifices, cast system, and the Vedas themselves, which were the foundation of Indian culture and all that was assumed to be true about reality. Tyler’s Sangha parallels this, but in North American culture the lines of credit and consumerism are the foundational assumptions about life. The credit card companies of North American culture perpetuate an attachment to past debts and allow people to accumulate the debts of the future, symbolizing living in either the future or the past but never the present. This parallels the Vedic culture and a wrong world-view that accumulates karma, which keeps all within the wheel of Samsara, and prevents them from realizing the enlightenment of the present. Tyler vandalizes corporate artwork, chain-owned coffee shops, as well as destroying the credit companies in an attempt to bring the debt record back to zero. His Sangha challenges people to think beyond what consumerism tells them, to not listen to the advertisements that are bombarding them at all times and to reject their illusory debts and credit. He tries to force the people of his culture to open their eyes and not to live according to what a bank machine, or a Brahmin priest states the state of their soul as, but to make contact with reality.
 Tyler constantly reminds his followers, the Sangha, that they “are not special, [they] are not beautiful unique snowflakes; [they] are the same decaying organic matter as everything else”[xi]. This attempts to break the illusion one holds in striving to be the unique snowflake, and at the same time thirsting to be better than “decaying matter”. “[They] are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world”[xii], which associates people’s existence with a verb rather than a noun similar to the old Zen story that describes people as a wave on the ocean; people are something the universe is doing. The wave is an action of the ocean, just as a person is an action of the cosmos. There is no self to desire for. The realization that everyone is going to die (Anicca) is perpetually shoved in the faces of all that are in the presence of Tyler. “In a long enough time line, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero”[xiii], which is why Tyler orders his followers to carry five hundred dollars with them for their personal burial money. It is just another reminder of their mortality. The viewer is also reminded of the impermanence (Anicca) of beauty as ‘Jack’ beats a “beautiful” young blond man, who had gained Tyler’s affection, to a bloody pulp. Tyler and ‘Jack’ being the same person, remind all who look-on not to thirst for Tyler’s affection, for it is fleeting.
 Another example of the intensified search for truth occurs when Tyler is driving a car while arguing with ‘Jack’. Tyler turns the car into oncoming traffic, while ‘Jack’ protests in his desire to continue living. As Tyler lets go of the steering wheel ‘Jack’ grabs onto it in an attempt to control his life. Tyler then screams at him to “let go”[xiv], symbolizing the letting go of desires and illusory control over one’s life. If he could only “let go” of these desires, then he could be free (Nirvana). This event is characteristic of the symbolic in-your-face intense meditation experiences throughout this film.
 Despite these lessons, ‘Jack’ still struggles to reconcile his ideal self (Tyler) with his profane self (Marla) and begins to feel that Project Mayhem is going too far. As he thinks that the path is becoming too ascetic, Tyler goes beyond his reach and ‘Jack’ searches for him, trying to understand who it is that he wants to become. Just as Siddhartha the ascetic had to seek a new self upon hearing a musician speaking about the string that breaks because it is too tight, while not playing when too loose. Upon hearing this Siddhartha’s goal was no longer that of an ascetic, and he had to find the placement for his new self between the ascetic and the prince, some where on the Middle Path. Tyler eventually appears again to ‘Jack’ but with his head shaved, symbolizing that ‘Jack’ now views his ideal self differently. They begin to fight, which is really ‘Jack’ fighting himself symbolizing the struggle to gain control over one’s mind, described as “a battle between the opposing forces of delusion and bodhi”[xv].
 Tyler’s fornication with Marla is evidence of ‘Jack’s desire to have reconciliation with the things he detests. Eventually, reconciliation is accomplished when he discovers that Tyler only exists in his mind; that Tyler is a projection of his desire to be something more than he is. Tyler’s existence creates karma that attaches ‘Jack’ to the future self he wants to be, and reminds him that he is not as ‘perfect’ as Tyler is, so he must continue to strive towards an unrealistic goal. ‘Jack’ is continually striving for Tyler while evading Marla. However, Marla exists whereas Tyler does not. In letting go of Tyler he can embrace Marla, accepting things as they are, for even in rejecting something one is holding on to the rejection. This is similar to the Buddha’s complete acceptance of the truth. “Since the Dharma has no abiding form, there should be no grasping, no rejection"[xvi]; “Zen is choosing to have no preferences”[xvii]. Tyler represents the Dharma of which the Diamond Sutra warns; “if their minds grasp the Dharma, they will still cling to the notion of an ego”[xviii]. An old Japanese proverb states that Zen is like soap; first, you wash with the soap, then you wash the soap off. Even though ‘Jack’ is taught by Tyler, he must eventually “let go” of him too. Realizing the non-existence of Tyler he shoots himself and states “my eyes are open”[xix]. This action results in Tyler’s death (who does not exist) as well as the destruction of all sense of ‘self’ and delusion, destroying all longing he had to be someone he was not spurring acceptance for all that he detests and was previously driven from (Marla).
 His enlightenment results in the fall of the foundational structure supporting society that retards people’s ability to realize Truth. As the Vedic culture falls under Buddha’s awakening, so the credit companies and western consumerism fall under ‘Jack’s’ awakening. The movie Fight Club presents a symbolic journey of what enlightenment would be like in the western world, rather than in the fantastical ancient East, which is so alien and distant to those in the modern West. This movie brings enlightenment to the front door of all who watch it in the West, and show the impact of Buddhism to the culture that Siddhartha was born into.
The Dalai Lama. The Path to Tranquility. Ed. Renuka Singh. New York: Penquin Group, 1999.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. 20th Century Fox. 2000.
Mitchell, Donald. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1996.
Smith, Jean. Ed. 365 Zen: Daily Readings. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
[i] David Fincher
[ii] David Fincher
[iii] David Fincher
[iv] David Fincher
[v] David Fincher
[vi] The Dalai Lama, p.384
[vii] The Dalai Lama, p.164
[viii] Charlotte Joko Beck, 365 Zen. p.290
[ix] David Fincher
[x] Chuck Palahniuk, p.129
[xi] David Fincher
[xii] David Fincher
[xiii] David Fincher
[xiv] David Fincher
[xv] Philip Kapleau, 365 Zen. p.173
[xvi] Sheng-Yen, 356 Zen. p.94
[xvii] Timothy Freke, 365 Zen. p.313
[xviii] The Diamond Sutra, 365 Zen. p.312
[xix] David Fincher